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Sharp Health News

When heart disease runs in the family

Feb. 25, 2016

Hereditary heart disease

Robyn Bullard (center) with her parents at her college graduation.

In 1989, my dad suffered a massive heart attack and died at the all-too-young age of 58. That day, he had my mom pick him up from work because he thought he "was coming down with something" and didn't want to drive. They didn't make it home that day. Doctors would later tell us he very likely had previous warning signs, given the severity of the heart attack. In fact, you may have a massive heart attack without any previous symptoms.

Fast forward more than a decade later and my small, non-drinking, non-smoking mom had her own heart attack. Luckily, she survived. She has been a heart patient ever since, complete with a bypass, numerous stents and angioplasty. Given what she learned with my dad, she does not ignore her warning signs.

Unlike high cheekbones or great skin, heart problems are an unwelcome but often real trait passed on in families. My dad's death was not only a wake-up call for my mother, but also for my three sisters and me, as we'd landed in a category of higher-risk of heart problems. In other words, we need to pay attention to not only warning signs, but to science itself.

According to Dr. Suhail Zavaro, a cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, the numbers are real. "The risk of developing coronary heart disease in the presence of a positive family history ranges from 40 to 60 percent," says Dr. Zavaro. He notes that if your parent or sibling was diagnosed with or died of cardiovascular disease prior to age 55 for men and age 65 for women, you are at higher risk.

My dad's death at age 58 was close enough to 55 for me to take note. What do I need to do above and beyond someone without my family history to lower my risk of coronary heart disease (CHD)? Dr. Zavaro's suggestions included tests such as a fasting lipid panel, blood glucose test and exercise treadmill test. In addition, a CRP test (testing for the level of C-reactive protein in your blood) can also help to evaluate your risk.

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association recommend an assessment of 10-year risk for those 40 to 79 years of age, every four to six years. If your 10-year risk is lower than 7.5 percent, follow the ACC/AHA lifestyle guidelines, which include healthy eating and exercise. If your risk is 7.5 percent or more, talk with your doctor about cholesterol treatment, and obesity and lifestyle management.

Dr. Zavaro endorses a Mediterranean-style diet, particularly the goal of eating fish at least twice a week. Add in plenty of fruits and vegetables, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight, and you will lower your risk even further.

"The association between family history and CHD can be both genetic and environmental, so we should control what we can such as diet and lifestyle," he says.

Well, if I must, two tickets to the Mediterranean, please, and I'll have the fish.

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